Friday, March 30, 2012

Syllabic Lineation: Part 4

Syllabic Lineation: Part 4

Closing Thoughts

I’m concluding my series on syllabic lineation with a few, short closing thoughts.  These are miscellaneous observations that are relevant to syllabic lineation, but I have not focused on enough to make a full length post.

1.         My sense is that syllabic verse in English has yet to establish itself as a distinct way of poetry.  In a previous post I referred to a syllabic approach as a ‘third way’ of approaching English poetry.  The other two are traditional metrical poetry and free verse.  Both metrical and free verse have developed a secure sense of self-identity and a kind of ad hoc ‘canon’ of significant poets in their respective approaches.  Syllabic verse in English has yet to do this.

2.         My view is that if syllabic verse in English is to become a distinct approach to poetry the key lies in having a distinct approach to lineation.  In this series I have offered several ways to go about this.  Undoubtedly there are others as well.  The ‘third way’ of syllabic verse is a third way of lineation.  For metrical verse lineation is defined by metrical count.  For free verse lineation is open; lineation is not structured according to a counting procedure.  For syllabic verse lineation is based on the count of syllables.  However, just having the right count does not in itself lead to the reader or hearer understanding the line as a distinct line of a poem.  Other factors need to be present to secure a sense of a line.  In other words, simply counting syllables is not sufficient in itself to give the reader a sense of the syllabic form. 

3.         It remains an open question as to whether or not English syllabic verse can generate a syllabic form which will have the same attractiveness to poets as, for example, the Tanka in Japan, the Quatrain in China, or the Alexandrine in France.  On the positive side, a number of syllabic forms have appeared in the last 100 years, beginning with the Crapsey Cinquain, which have elicited interest among a wide variety of poets.  I am thinking of the Cinquain, the Tetractys, the Fibonacci, and a few others.  It is possible that these forms will develop widespread usage and interest.  Some of these forms are introduced in grade schools which indicates a possible acceptance of these forms.

On the down side, many who approach these forms for the first time apply the tools they have learned from other approaches to poetry to syllabics and that often does not work.  In particular, the mapping of a free verse approach to lineation onto syllabic forms undermines the specific form being used.  This can be overcome by more clearly articulating a specific syllabic approach to lineation.

4.         Interestingly, the most successful syllabic form in English seems to be the syllabic Haiku, which is a borrowed form (other borrowed syllabic forms include Tanka and Sijo, but they have not developed anywhere near the following that syllabic Haiku has).  The widespread popularity of syllabic Haiku is a positive sign that a syllabic approach to English language poetry is workable and creatively rich.

5.         In my posts on lineation I have often referred to East Asian models, particularly Japan and China.  This reflects my own history; the fact that I studied in Japan and Korea and have had a long term interest in that cultural sphere.  Unfortunately I do not know very much about French or Italian poetry.  Both of these cultures write poetry syllabically.  According to Alfred Corn,

“A surprising development in the modern period was the adaptation of syllable-count meter for English and American poetry, which had before then always used stress as the primary metrical base.  What led to this innovation?  Partly it was the result of the high regard that English and American poets felt for French poetry during the last decades of the nineteenth century.  If French poetry used syllable-count meter, then English-language poets hoping to appropriate some of its strengths would use it also.”

(The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody, page 127)

I would like to learn more about how French, and Italian, poetry defines a line.  Just as Japanese poetry defines a line almost entirely based on grammar, and the Chinese make extensive use of rhyme, so also I suspect that there are longstanding traditions of how to shape a line in French poetry that can contribute to an English language syllabic verse.

I am particularly interested in how French poetry establishes their longer lined forms.  English language syllabic forms tend to be short line forms; e.g. the Cinquain, the Tetractys, and the Fibonacci.  French and Italian poetry, in contrast, have developed longer lined syllabic forms.  How have they done this?  Can such an approach work in an English language syllabic approach?

6.         I have not dealt with English language poets who write syllabically but have not written in definable forms.  I am thinking of poets like Marianne Moore and Dylan Thomas.  My focus is on syllabic forms that transcend any individual poet.  Perhaps, I am beginning to think, this is a shortcoming on my part.  Just as I have learned much from the metrical poet Emily Dickinson, it is likely that I could learn more from poets like Moore and Thomas, and then apply what I have learned to syllabic formal traditions.

7.         A consciously syllabic approach to English poetry is new; a little over 100 years old.  From some perspectives it is still nascent and rich with potential.  I get the impression that syllabic verse is still feeling its way.  From a different perspective, it appears that syllabics has taken root in the English language world.  For example, there are magazines devoted to specific syllabic forms, a steady stream of poetry books wherein the poet demonstrates their facility with one or more syllabic form, and a growing sense of the heritage of syllabic verse.  Personally, I am optimistic.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


A rain filled morning --
It's a perfect day for prayer
And calla lilies

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Syllabic Lineation: Part 3

Syllabic Lineation: Part 3

One of the ways English poetry defines a line is through the use of rhyme.  I suspect that rhyme is the most widespread mechanism for defining a line in English poetry, both in the past and in the present.  I am including under ‘poetry’ song lyrics, in particular popular song. 

It is my personal opinion that the rhyme is the most underutilized tool for lineation among those interested in syllabic forms in English.  I mentioned in a previous post that most poets who become interested in English syllabic forms such as the Cinquain or Tetractys, etc., come to these forms from free verse.  Again, as I mentioned previously, this is understandable since free verse tends to be dominant in many poetry societies and in many universities as well. 

One of the consequences of this journey from free verse to syllabic verse is that the poet who makes this journey is slow to awaken to the unique features and demands of syllabic verse and how syllabic verse differs from free verse.  One can observe this in the absence of rhyme among syllabic verse poets.

Modern free verse is not neutral about rhyme; it often openly rejects the use of rhyme.  Is this an exaggeration?  Consider these three stories.  A British friend of mine who is a poet told me that a friend of his was named the judge in an open poetry competition.  My British friend asked the judge how he sorted through the numerous entries.  The judge responded, “The first thing I do is throw out all the poems that rhyme.”

A friend of mine who is a free verse poet once said to me, “When I see a poem that rhymes I feel like the poet caught a cold.”  He went on to talk about how he systematically eliminated any rhyme that happened to appear in his poems.

Finally, at a Haiku discussion forum a participant (not me) raised the issue of rhyme; meaning whether or not it is OK to use rhyme in Haiku.  What surprised me was how strongly the Haiku poets at that forum rejected rhyme.  This extended to a rejection of rhyme even when it appeared naturally, as it often does in English.

The above stories are anecdotal; I haven’t taken a systematic survey.  But I also believe they are illustrative of a general pressure on poets emanating from free verse practitioners to avoid rhyme in modern English poetry.  The absence of rhyme in modern free verse is one of its distinctive features, contrasting with all previous types of English poetry and separating modern free verse from popular culture where rhyme is still admired and still abounds.

It took me a long time to see the virtue of rhyme in a syllabic context.  Once again it was Emily Dickinson who showed me the way.  It was Dickinson who taught me not to be afraid of rhyme.  As I have mentioned, Dickinson is not a syllabic poet.  But her poems are short and succinct, like most English Syllabic forms.  And Dickinson’s use of rhyme is so natural and so efficacious that I found her approach to rhyme maps very well onto syllabic forms such as Tanka, Tetractys, Haiku, Etheree, etc.  If I have one suggestion regarding rhyme for the English syllabic poet it is this:  read Dickinson.  She is your sure guide into the world of rhyme as a useful tool for defining a line.

The other source that pulled me in the direction of using more rhyme in my poetry was traditional Chinese poetry.  I discovered that traditional Chinese poetry is rhymed syllabic verse.  And in an intriguing way, Chinese and English share certain features which makes the use of rhyme in Chinese poetry applicable to English.  I am referring in particular to the fact that the English language has a larger percentage of one syllable words than other European languages.  This happened because English, for the most part, dropped the use of inflections.  Inflections add syllables to a word; that’s how inflections work.  When inflections are dropped, the syllable count of the average word in a language goes down.

Chinese is a monosyllabic language (with the exception of a small number of borrowed terms; mostly from Buddhist Sanskrit).  Chinese is much more single syllable based than English; but, still there is an intriguing overlap here.  Here is an example of a Quatrain I wrote which illustrates the overlap:

As the day draws to an end,
As the month comes to a close,
I turn to look at a vase,
Blue and gold with one white rose.

Notice that all the words are one-syllable words.  The line count is the same as in one form of Chinese Quatrain; seven syllables per line.  And the rhyme scheme mimics the standard rhyme scheme for Chinese Quatrains: A-B-C-B.  Notice how the closing rhyme has a strongly cadential feel to it.  There is also a musical quality to the structure of the Chinese Quatrain and traditionally many of these Quatrains were sung.

Traditional Chinese poetry is a great resource for showing the English syllabic poet how rhyme can be integrated into syllabic forms.  But, in order to see this, the English syllabic poet will need to search out translations of traditional Chinese poetry that also contain a transliteration of the poems: a transliteration is essential for accessing the sonic dimension of traditional Chinese poetry.  Unfortunately, such volumes are rare.  It is more common for books of Chinese poetry in English to include the Chinese characters for the poem.  But this is not helpful for the syllabic poet because Chinese characters do not help is to understand how the poem sounds. 

In addition, I must stress, that if you find a translation of traditional Chinese poetry into English that looks like free verse, this also will not help you as a syllabic poet.  English syllabic poets need to become aware that traditional Chinese poetry is formal verse and its norms are as far from modern free verse as could be.  It is my hope that in the future there will be more translations of Chinese poetry into English that are more respectful of the tradition.  Nevertheless, good volumes that contain the transliterations do exist and I have found them of great help in opening to the application of rhyme to English syllabic verse.

I do not think there is any more powerful definer of a line for English poetry than rhyme.  It is so strong that it can override the suggestions previously made regarding lineation.  For example, in the post on grammar I suggest not using run-on lines in syllabic verse as run-ons undermine the specific form of the syllabic verse.  However, if the run-on line includes an end-rhyme, then it will still be heard by the listener as a kind of line-ending gesture.  Here is an example from a syllabic sonnet I wrote:

Why I Go For a Walk at Dawn

I read somewhere that the sun is brighter
Now than it was millions of years ago.
I’m not a scientist, I do not know
The data, calculations, or reasons
Used to back up that determination.

Lines 1 & 2 are a continuous run-on sentence.  Line 3 has an end-rhyme with Line 2: ago/not know.  Line 3 runs-on into Line 4 non-stop, but the use of the end-rhyme at Line 3 suddenly brings clarity to the shape of the poem, defining the line length.  So even though Line 3 is a grammatical run-on, the use of the end-rhyme overcomes the usually dissolving effect of run-ons and is sufficient in itself to define the line.

Here is another example, a Tanka:

I’ve seen this before,
It’s another total war,
You’d think they be bored
As hell doing this again,
Standing in a field of gore.

Lines 3 runs-on into Line 4; ‘bored as hell’ is a single grammatical unit.  But because ‘bored’ end-rhymes with the two previous lines, the effect is to overcome the dissolving effect of the run-on, as the end-rhyme overcomes what would normally feel like a dissolution.

The use of end-rhyme can increase the contrapuntal texture of a poem.  By ‘contrapuntal’ I mean that a line of a poem might end with both a grammatical unit and end-rhyme, or it might end with just a grammatical unit, or it might end with just an end-rhyme with the grammatical unit being a run-on.  The syllabic poet needs to learn how these can interact and the effects that emerge from the playful interaction of these line defining strategies.

Here’s an example of this kind of interplay in a Tanka found in Yeshaya Rotbard’s “The Calligraphy of Clouds”:


To let go of fear
is to let go of something
I hold very near.
If I ever do let go –
will there still be someone here?

Lines 1, 3 and 5 rhyme.  The rhyme of L3 concludes the first part of the Tanka.  The last words of L2, ‘something’ is a kind of pivot; it could be the last word of a grammatical unit consisting of L2, or the first word of a unit that concludes in L3.  This ambiguity is settled by the end-rhyme of L3.  Notice also that the end-rhyme for L5 brings the second section to a close, emphasizing the cadential quality of the rhyme usage.

Here’s another example from Rotbard:

What Do You Own?

Though my home is small,
a dome of stars surrounds me.
Moon shines in my wine.
Out here, the winds play, bells chime,
trees sway.  Half a world is mine.

Lines 1 & 2 give us the setting and each line is a grammatical unit.  Lines 3, 4, & 5 rhyme, with the middle line, L4, a slant rhyme, but still clearly audible.  L3 is a complete sentence, marked with a period.  It starts off the rhyme sequence.  L4 ends with a run-on that is part of a list, and this line continues into L5, concluding the list mid-line.  L5 then concludes with a short sentence that increases the sense of closure by the true rhyme to L3 and the slant rhyme to L4.  I think this is really elegant usage of rhyme here and is a good model for how to use rhyme in several ways in syllabic poetry.

It took me some time to realize the potential for rhyme in English syllabic verse.  In closing I would like to suggest another resource for how to use rhyme in this context.  That resource is popular song.  As you are driving, listen to popular song and how rhyme is used.  Or when you are in a coffee shop, do the same with the music being played there.  I think you will be surprised at how many run-on lines are rhyme defined in popular song.  Popular song also freely uses a broad field of rhyme that includes slant rhyme (I sometimes think that Emily Dickinson’s use of slant rhyme may have had origins in the popular songs of her time).  Also note the emotional affect that rhyme produces in popular song: sometimes it is humorous, even childish.  And sometimes it has a feeling of exaltation.  And at still other times it seems to be like natural speech.

Rhyme is a wonderful poetic tool.  People find it intrinsically enjoyable.  Rhyme assists the memory and gives a poem a song-like quality.  It is my hope that rhyme will become more and more a part of English syllabic verse.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Etheree Taylor Armstrong Day

Good Morning:

Today is Etheree Taylor Armstrong Day.  She is the poet who created the Etheree syllabic form.  I have grown to be very fond of this simple form.  I think I now compose poems in this form more often than any other.  I think what appeals to me is the simplicity of the form and how agreeable the form is to individual expression.

I have found it difficult to find out information about Ms. Armstrong other than the birth and death dates: February 13, 1918 to March 14, 1994.  I have noticed on other online sites devoted to poetry that they say the same thing in their sections on the Etheree form.  I think this is because Ms. Armstrong was what I call a ‘local poet’.  That is to say she seems to have been content to write and publish for a local audience.  She seems to have lived her whole life in Arkansas and doesn’t appear to have been interested in contacting or publishing in a national context.

I managed to snag one of her chapbooks when it appeared on amazon.  It is called “The Willow Green Of Spring”, published in 1967.  Most of the poetry is rhymed and there is an emphasis on traditional forms: there is a sonnet and examples of rhymed quatrains.  This particular volume does not contain any Etheree as I believe it predates her presentation of the form.  The poems reveal a life of deep faith; many of the poems are explicitly religious and others use religious imagery.  It also appears that Ms. Armstrong lost her three brothers during their tours of duty in the military and this deeply affected her life and view of the world.  I believe that is part of the reason that there are included in this collection some strongly patriotic poems.

Interestingly, the work contains two Haiku:


Violets duck their
heads, as daisies count “He loves
me, he loves me not.”


Summer hibiscus;
southern belles gowned in red flame
with hummingbird hats.

Personally, I don’t find these as successful as her other, more traditional, efforts in this collection.  But it does show an awareness on Ms. Armstrong’s part of Haiku in the west; remember this was published in 1967 when Haiku societies were still being established.  I don’t know if she was in touch with the new Haiku societies.  If anyone has information about this I would like to hear from you.  I am speculating that Haiku was her door to a syllabic approach to poetry because almost all the other poems in this collection are metrical.  Haiku may have been her way of uncovering the potential for a syllabic approach which eventually lead to the Etheree form.

She was aware of a range of modern poetry.  Here is her poem for T. E. Elliot:

Your kinship
spans eternal bridges;
conformity to things commonplace
is a rocker
for unfinished dreams.

And here is a poem titled ‘KINDRED SPIRIT’ about Robert Frost:

Old clothes and shoes and a summer rain;
A wobbledy calf, and a country lane.
We gathered apples, both soon and late;
We made repairs on the pasture gate.
A crooked trail and a low-flung ridge
Led us down to the low-water bridge –
Where willow trees are old and mossed;
I have walked this day with Robert Frost.

Notice how both poems reflect the styles of the poets that are the topic of the poems. 

I hope to learn more about Etheree Taylor Armstrong.  But for today I’ll close with one of her poems that I enjoyed:


I should cut that vine
away from the tree,
And trim the branches
so we could ‘see’ –
The vine must be
thirty feet long;
But where would the poet
get his song?
Where would the Cardinal
build his nest?
Without the vine
where would he rest?
How can anyone honestly say –
They can improve nature anyway?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Easy Evening

Friends gather
Sharing old songs

Monday, March 5, 2012

Syllabic Lineation: Part 2

Syllabic Lineation: Part 2


In Part 1 of ‘Syllabic Lineation’ I focused on the use of parallel construction.  I noted that parallels in poetry almost always are parallels of grammatical construction.  Here I would like to refer to grammar in general and how grammar can be used to shape a syllabic line.

The idea here is that a line of a poem is also a grammatical unit.  This can be the subject  of a sentence, the verb or verb phrase, a prepositional phrase, the direct object, indirect object, and modifying phrases such as adjectival or adverbial phrases (or single words), or the line can be a whole sentence.  This is an approach that is used instinctively by poets because it is often the case that in ordinary speech a grammatical unit will be signaled by a pause, like a short breath, on the speaker’s part. 

The poetry of Japan is an excellent example of a traditional syllabic poetic culture which relies almost entirely on grammar to determine line.  Japanese poetry does not use rhyme or meter, but it does have complex and articulate ways of signaling a grammatical unit (a ‘ku’).  One of these ways is through the use of ‘kireji’ or ‘cutting words’.  What is ‘cut’ by kireji is the sentence into smaller units or ‘ku’.  There is no English language equivalent for kireji (I’m not aware of an equivalent in any European language).  Still, I have found it helpful in my own syllabic verse to become familiar with how kireji work in Japanese poetry.  Though English does not have kireji, or anything that has the same function, what is transferrable is a sense of how a grammatical unit can function as a line.  This is something that traditional Japanese poetry can offer the English syllabic poet.

Before proceeding further regarding grammar and lineation I want to say a few words about contemporary free verse.  Contemporary free verse (I mean free verse roughly from the 1960’s onward) is distinguished by an approach to lineation which strikes me as arbitrary.  By ‘arbitrary’ I mean that the line is often broken in a way that does not reflect grammatical structure.  For example, it is common these days to see a line ending with a preposition, thereby breaking the prepositional phrase and distributing it over two (sometimes more) lines.  It is also common to see free verse poetry where a line ends with an article which has a similar effect of undermining the sense of a secure line.  This contrasts with the older style of free verse where a prepositional phrase would be a single line and where articles are always used to begin a line, or placed mid-line in their natural setting, but not at the end of a line: see Whitman

It is often the case that English poets who become interested in syllabics come from a free verse background if for no other reason than that free verse is well established and tends to be dominant in many poetry organizations and at Universities.  For this reason there is an initial application of modern free verse lineation to syllabic forms.  That was true in my own case and I have observed this among others as well.  It takes some time and experience to realize that modern free verse lineation doesn’t really map very well onto English syllabic forms. 

Why do I say this?  I say this because in order for the poet to communicate to the reader or listener the specific form, clear lineation is the key.  It is clear lineation that distinguishes one syllabic form from another.  But if the grammatical structure is not synchronous with the lines of the poem, then the syllabic structure of the poem is obscured, often to the point of vanishing.  I am referring here to the tendency of modern free verse poets to overindulge in run-on lines, as opposed to lines that are either whole sentences in themselves, or have linebreaks where there is a natural grammatical division.  My feeling is that for many modern free verse poems the linebreaks read like the poet put the word processor on a narrow column formatting and the linebreaks occur where the word processor has mechanically determined them to be.  I often have the feeling that modern free verse lineation is so arbitrary that if the lineation was changed the meaning of the poem would not be altered in the slightest.  Often it seems to me that the poem would actually be improved if written as a simple paragraph.

The poet who taught me most about grammatical lineation, and how it works, is Emily Dickinson.  Dickinson was not a syllabic poet; she was a metrical poet.  Nevertheless I believe that her poetry offers excellent guidance for the English syllabic poet.  First, because Dickinson’s poems are short and most English syllabic forms are also short.  And second because Dickinson’s poems consistently exhibit a sure sense of a line.  There are several simple lessons I have gleaned from Dickinson.  One is that conjunctions should begin a line: words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ always start a line in Dickinson’s usage.  This is one factor which gives Dickinson’s poetry an assuredness of shape and a strong sense of line.  Another is that prepositions begin a line; they almost never appear at the end of a line, and the prepositional phrase itself constitutes a whole line.  Prepositional phrases are almost never broken up and distributed among multiple lines.  The one exception to this might be a prepositional phrase embedded in another prepositional phrase.  There are exceptions to these observations, but in general they hold.  (As an aside, it sometimes strikes me that Dickinson’s use of dashes at times resembles the use of kireji in Japanese poetry.)

These kinds of techniques give Dickinson’s poetry a sure sense of lineation, of when a line begins.  Whether you are reading or listening, one always feels a strong sense of placement within the form of the poem.  And this is the quality that a syllabic poet in English needs to strive for: that strong sense of placement within the poem as the poem unfolds.  My view is that the syllabic poet is unlikely to get such a sense of clear lineation and placement by following contemporary free verse lineation practices.  Sooner or later the syllabic poet will simply revert back to free verse, or will begin to see that syllabic forms require a different approach to lineation than what modern free verse offers.

Study of modern syllabic poets who have a sense of clear lineation is also helpful.  Here is an example from Richard Wright:

The sound of a train
Fading in the autumn hills, --
And tomorrow too.

(Haiku: This Other World, #603)

Line 1 is the subject.  Line 2 is the verb phrase.  Line 3 takes a turn, embedded the image of Lines 1 and 2 in a larger context.  Notice how Line 3 begins with the conjunction ‘and’.

Here is Haiku 132 from Wright’s collection:

What stranger is that
Walking in the winter rain
And looking this way?

Here is an example of a Haiku that is a single sentence, each line representing a grammatical unit of the complete sentence.  Line 1 gives us the subject of the Haiku, the stranger.  Line 2 gives us the setting of the Haiku and the seasonal reference.  Line 3 gives us the action that is taking place, the unexpected ‘looking’.  This is classic Haiku form effortlessly mapped onto the English language.  The clarity of the line, the masterful use of lineation, demonstrates how Haiku in English, even without kireji, has the capacity to sound like a native English form.

Here is an example from Susan August:

launching the canoe
onto the fog shrouded lake
she returned older

(Haiku Applecart, page 77)

Again we have a single sentence or thought.  Line 2 is a prepositional phrase.  There is a mysterious quality with this Haiku.  At first we read it as descriptive of an event.  But with Line 3 the Haiku takes a sudden turn and we realize that Lines 1 and 2 may be metaphorical, or both concrete and metaphorical.  It is a Haiku rich in meaning, supported by the secure lineation.

Here is another example from August:

raising mini-blinds
a million dust motes dancing
in autumn sunshine

(Haiku Distance, page 27)

It’s interesting to note that August very rarely uses conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’ in her Haiku.  I found a few, but very few.  In contrast, Wright’s Haiku often use conjunctions.  August tends to a broad use of the prepositional phrase.  Wright tends to the use of phrases starting with conjunctions that are essential asides.

But notice how in both the case of Richard Wright and Susan August their practice of lineation follows natural English grammatical divisions.  Grammatical units are not scattered over more than one line.  This contrasts with the lineation practices of many modern free verse poets.  And goes a long way in explaining why Haiku poets like Wright and August create memorable Haiku that is simultaneously secure in its shape as Haiku.

I’d like to close with one suggestion.  My own view of the role of grammar in shaping lines for syllabic verse is strong enough that I would encourage those who are attracted to syllabic verse to study English grammar.  I don’t mean earning a degree in English grammar (though that’s OK too).  I mean taking two to four semesters of English grammar.  My observation is that grammar is often neglected in public schools and so you can’t rely on what you learned there.  If I were to design a curriculum for the English syllabic poet, I would put the study of grammar as essential.  Just as Japanese poets learn the nuances of various kireji so that they can shape their poetry according to Japanese grammatical usage, so also the English syllabic poetry needs to have a sense of basic English grammatical structure so that these basic structures can be used as the basis for their syllabic poetry.

How will studying grammar assist the syllabic poet?  The more one understands grammar the more one can use grammar in an expressive way.  Here is what I am referring to:  grammar maps onto lineation in a range of ways.  At one end the entire poem can consist of a single sentence or statement.  At the other end each line of a poem can be a full sentence.  Here is an example of a Tanka I wrote that consists of five statements, one per line:

I loved that old shirt.
I had it for fifteen years.
It fit like a glove.
I tore it into rags today.
Soon, someone will spread my ashes.

Here each line is a full sentence.  Here is an example of a Tanka that consists of one grammatical unit:

The tree branch falling
As I looked out my window
I saw you walking
Farther and farther away
A swan flies over a field

Through the use of pivot lines all the lines of this Tanka are linked together in a grammatically seamless whole.  And here an example of a Tanka that is grammatically between the two I’ve quoted:

What a wonderful idea!
If only I could.
After all these years I find
Small things still disturb my mind.

The last two lines form a single sentence after the staccato opening lines.

What I’m getting at here is that lineation and grammar interact in a variety of ways and understanding their range of interaction is a tool that the syllabic poet can use to great emotional effect.  In other words, grammar is a significant tool for the syllabic poet and the more skillful a syllabic poet is with this tool the clearer the shape of syllabic poem will be and the more secure the readers and listeners will find themselves.


The sunset morning --
Circling the rings of Saturn
Dreams without a home

Friday, March 2, 2012


A solemn darkness
On the night of the full moon
Missiles from the sky

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Syllabic Lineation: Part 1

Lineation for English Syllabic Verse:
Part 1 -- Parallelism

The subject of lineation, how a line is defined and heard as a line, is central to syllabic poetry.  It is through the craft of lineation that the syllabic poet communicates to the reader and listener the particular syllabic form of the poem.  For example, given these three forms of poetry, the Tetractys, the 5-4 Quatrain, and the 6-line Fibonacci, all of three of these forms contain an overall syllable count of 20 syllables.  However, the count per line differs.  In order to clearly distinguish between such forms the syllabic poet needs to clearly indicate where a line ends and where the next one begins.  If this isn’t done, readers and listeners won’t be able to feel any difference between a Tetractys and a 6-line Fibonacci.

English language poetry has roughly four means for indicating the end of a poetic line: meter, grammar, rhyme, and parallelism.  In traditional English poetry, the accentual nature of the usage gives the poetic line a definite shape.  In iambic tetrameter, four beats designates the end of a line.  In iambic pentameter, five beats and we’ve reached the end of the line.  It is the same kind of feeling people have when they tap to music or clap their hands to a song. 

Syllabic Verse, by definition, does not use meter as a structural element to determine or signal when a line ends.  Many poetic cultures do not use such a determination such as French, Japanese and Chinese poetry.  But traditionally English poetry has used meter.  A syllabic approach is something relatively new for English poetry; dating to early in the 20th century. 

Without meter as an indicator of lineation that leaves three means: grammar, rhyme, and parallelism.  I believe English syllabic poets can learn a lot from those cultures that have used a syllabic approach for many centuries.  For example, Japanese poetic lineation rests primarily on grammar, while Chinese poetic lineation rests to a significant extent on rhyme.  In both cases I am referring to their traditional approaches.  I think it is useful to take advantage of what these poetic cultures have to offer and see how far it can map onto English language usage.  But let’s take each of the three approaches one at a time.  I’m going to start with parallelism.

Parallelism is an excellent way to communicate lineation.  In my opinion the best resource for learning how parallelism works in the English language is the Book of Psalms from the King James Bible.  I recommend specifically the King James Version because of its unparalleled influence on English literature, its majesterial tone, and the superior craftsmanship of its phrasing over all other English language translations.  (In particular, I recommend the Book of Psalms for those composing English language free verse because the KJV Book of Psalms can be viewed as the earliest collection in the English language of free verse poetry.)

Here is a famous example of parallelism from Psalm 23:

2.         He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3.         He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Verses 2 and 3 consist of two clauses each, indicated by the use of a colon.  Each clause begins with the pronoun ‘He’ followed by a verb, followed by the pronoun ‘me’ or ‘my’.  The first three words of the second clauses of both verses 2 and 3 are identical: ‘He leadeth me’. 

Lineation here is exceptionally clear.  One of the interesting consequences of this kind of parallelism is that it increases the ability to memorize the passage.  This is true even though the overall line lengths vary greatly, here ranging from 6 to 15 syllables.  When parallelisms are strong they lend the poem an incantatory sense that feels musical even in the absence of a regularly recurring metrical line. 

Here is another example from Psalm 82, verses 3 and 4:

3.         Defend the poor and fatherless:
            Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4.         Deliver the poor and needy:
            Rid them out of the hand of the wicked.

Again we have two verses with four clear clauses.  Each clause begins with a verb.  There are, in addition, many crossover words.  ‘Poor’ appears in 3.1 and 4.1.  ‘Needy’ appears in 3.2 and 4.1.  4.1 serves to weave the two clauses of verse 3 together, tightening the overall relationship.  There is also a kind of call and response structure to this parallelism.  3.2 answers how to defend the poor and fatherless; by doing justice.  And 4.2 answers how to deliver the poor; rid them of the wicked.

A modern poet who uses parallelism frequently is Walt Whitman.  Some of his longer poems consists of sections of parallelisms which follow one another.  The 1860 edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ contains a long monologue simply titled ‘Walt Whitman’.  This poem contains long examples of parallelisms which allow Whitman to elaborate his understanding of the world.  Here is just one example:

Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheat-lot,
Where the bat flies in the Seventh Month eve –
Where the great gold-bug drops through the dark,
Where the flails keep time on the barn floor,
Where the brook puts out of the roots of the old tree and flows to the meadow

(Page 68, University of Iowa Edition)

This series continues for a total of 22 lines (counting each appearance of ‘Where’ as a line: at times Whitman typograpically doubles up).  This is typical in this long poem.  Whitman is a rich resource for how to use parallels in syllabic verse or modern free verse.  Notice how the first three words of each line has identical construction, then what follows varies.  Each appearance of the first three words brings us back to the previous lines, offering an overall sense of resonance and cohesion.

How do we apply these examples to syllabic verse?  The irregular lineation of these examples is applicable to most English syllabic forms.  What is being shown here is a way of bringing a felt sense of a line that is not specifically dependent on meter or rhyme.  This can be applied to syllabic forms where the line length changes from line to line such as the Etheree, the Fibonacci, and the Rictameter.  For example, Verse 3 of Psalm 23 could serve as a model for how to apply parallelism to the later lines of a Fibonacci where the count suddenly jumps: 8-13-21.  Verse 3 of Psalms 23 could also serve as a model for lines 4 and 5 of the Tetractys: 4-10.  And in reverse, the same could be said for lines 4 and 5 of the Cinquain: 8-2.

Parallelism is remarkably flexible in that it offers a method for communicating simply, both to the reader and listener, the presence of a line without demanding that the line feature other determinative markers such as meter or rhyme.  On the other hand, most parallelisms that I have read are also reflective of a grammatical structure; indeed, in most instances, what is being ‘paralleled’ is the grammatical structure that begins each line.  So there is an intimate connection between the grammar being used and the parallelism that shapes the line.  (Not all grammatical usages that define a line will be parallelisms; more on that later.)

Parallelism is a widely used poetic device with a rich heritage.  It is flexible enough to be easily adapted to syllabic forms.  Here’s an example from an Etheree I wrote:

Gold fish
In the tank
A the rest’raunt
The Chinese rest’raunt
Greeting the customers
As they come in they relax

Letting go of all the day’s tasks
Leaving behind the world of brass tacks
Allowing the mind to drift where it will

An island of calm which is perfectly still
Like a glacier fed stream where one can drink one’s fill.

The three lines I’ve separated off are an example of parallelism.  All three lines have a similar structure, beginning with an ‘ing’ verb.  They all start with a verb clause (‘letting go’, ‘leaving behind’, ‘allowing the mind’, followed by a closing clause.  Each opening clause increases by one syllable, mimicking the overall form of the Etheree itself. 

Parallelisms are a way of linking disparate images together through a series of metaphors.  Here is an example of mine from another Etheree:

At night
Seem so real
Under the light
Of the rising sun
The dream which had begun
Concludes its dance, is now done,

Like a plan which has had its run,
Like a memory lost in time’s mist,
Like opportunities that have been missed.

The last three lines are a series of metaphors for a dream ending.  The parallel structure serves to underline their unity even though the metaphors themselves offer varying images.

In shorter forms parallelisms are harder to integrate because of a lack of space for them to unfold.  Parallelism in Haiku would, I think, be more difficult, but still possible if done well.  In Tanka parallelism could serve to bring a certain unity to juxtaposed sections.  Here’s an example of parallelism in Tanka from Neal Henry Lawrence’s “Shining Moments”:

The abbey bell rings
Tolling life’s passing moments
Of joy and sorrow,
Of time for meditation
And to say the rosary.

(Page 73)

Lines 3 and 4 are a typical parallel structure; two prepositional phrases, similarly structured, but varying in line length.  There is also variety in the internal structure of each line.  Line 3 uses a conjunction, while Line 4 follows the opening prepositional phrase with a responding prepositional phrase.  I really like the way Lawrence’s usage of parallelism in this Tanka reflects the solemn nature of the activities he mentions.  I think this is a good example of how parallelism can be used in shorter syllabic forms.  (As an aside, Line 5 is almost another parallel, maybe a semi-parallel.  ‘To say the rosary’ would be a good standard parallel, but by adding the conjunction ‘and’ Laurence signals to us a poetic shift.  In this case he’s going to close the poem with this clause.  The near parallel structure of Line 5 is a gentle shift while still retaining some of the nature of Lines 3 and 4.)

In conclusion, parallelism offers the syllabic poet a way of defining a line that fits easily into a syllabic context.  It is an approach that people are already familiar with, an approach that has been used effectively for many centuries in English poetry, an approach that people seem to instinctively enjoy reading and hearing.